Opinion piece: Why do estate agents have so much trouble speaking to lawyers?

A couple of EYE readers last month accused me of non-disclosure and self-promotion – so I thought I’d make my position clearer.

I run The Partnership – a property law firm. Most agents that work with us like our approach.

However, we frustrate some and we have been known to “drop the ball”.

This article is a personal opinion from the coalface on why we think agents find it difficult to get to speak to lawyers.

Which sometimes can include us.

Right – now we’ve got that out the way, let’s have a look at what is going on here.

What is it that agents want?

It’s pretty simple – agents want communicative lawyers. As Homer Simpson would say – “Doh”.

Like the simplistic “Get Brexit Done”, this is actually quite tricky.

Especially as they also want to speak to someone who knows what is going on in their case.

So why is it so difficult to actually speak to an informed conveyancer, and what is the answer?

The key issue

Most law firms are owned and run by lawyers who come from a world where you did everything yourself.

This is most clearly shown by the issue of who gives quotes to prospective clients.

Our experience of mystery shopping shows it is actually quite difficult to get a quote over the telephone because the lawyer (who is the only person that does the quotes) is not available.

It’s no wonder those companies selling self-service quoting websites are finding a willing audience amongst over-stretched law firms.

The problem is, the suggestion that a suitably trained salesperson (and to be clear, we are not talking about call handlers in panel management companies) could have an informed discussion with a prospect, will be waved away with derision.

“Clients expect to speak with a qualified lawyer who understands the process” is the common view.

Unfortunately, those qualified lawyers are usually too busy working for other clients to have the time to take that call.

In this never-changing world, enabling telephones to be answered by someone who might be able to have a relevant conversation about the conveyancing process is way down the average partner’s agenda.

Conveyancing is a busy activity

There is a lot of snobbery about conveyancing.

Some consider it to be simple, mostly administrative work.

However, in reality, it requires an unusual combination of people skills, commercial acumen and legal knowledge. Finding this combination in one person is tricky.

Time is not spent contemplating the ins and outs of legal minutiae, but instead, problem solving and applying the law to each unique case. Coordinating answers from various sources means a property lawyer’s telephone is constantly ringing and availability of time is very limited.

When a lawyer is spending 45 minutes on the telephone to a mortgage lender, it’s no surprise they can’t take a call from an agent trying to get an answer for his client.

The challenge is being able to spread the work amongst several people, but ensuring that each is informed on every case that they are working on.

Lack of technology

Although law firms recognise that conveyancing is a manual process, there is still little uptake of the pityingly small amount of decent technology that is on offer.

Without technology, the process of accessing information on a case is much more time consuming, tying up even more resource.

Most law firms still rely on physical files, so the individual has to be in the same room as the paperwork.

If the lawyer is not available for whatever reason, it is difficult for someone else to help out with a telephone enquiry about the case. Either the information is inaccessible due to physical location, or worse, it is held in the lawyers’ head.

Is there a solution?

Firstly, lawyers need to recognise that there are certain elements of their role that they can give up. Typically, pre-instruction and post-completion can be delegated to other, trained people. Specialisation is key.

Secondly, they need to understand that to achieve this specialisation, they must charge enough money to afford to invest in training more people and deploying good technology. Owners need to have the confidence to walk away from low-fee work and spend time and effort winning the work directly. With good service come strong referrals which bring with them better fees.

Finally, lawyers must be able to get hold of the information they need quickly and efficiently. For this, they must move to a paperless environment. All documents and case information must be immediately available to them or their colleagues.

Conclusion

Property lawyers are fundamentally too busy to answer telephones because of out-dated work practices. They need to  break the circle of poor quality service which in turn impacts fees they can charge to enable them to afford to employ and train people needed to support them.

 

* Peter Ambrose is founder of independent conveyancing firm The Partnership

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19 Comments

  1. Rob Hailstone

    As far as I am aware, things haven’t changed much in 40 years. My working day usually started at about 5.00 am. Open the post and DX, deal with the quick stuff and prioritise the more lengthy complicated issues, dealing with as many as possible by 9.00 am, then pretty much give up on dealing with the more meaty legal issues until after 5.00 pm.
    9.00 am to 5.00 pm, make and take calls to and from clients, agents, brokers, lenders etc, and see clients.
    How I longed for the luxury of a weekend, no calls, no clients (well very few), head down, legal work done.

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    1. JonnyBanana43

      Ha ha. Try getting a millennial to work outside “working hours”… particularly with a first class degree from Luton. “Tony Blair told me if I got a degree I’d earn loadsa money and not have to work…” 

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      1. StayGreen

        Maybe millenials are better at their jobs so don’t need to work outside of working hours.

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        1. JonnyBanana43

          Yes, sorry. You’re right.

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          1. add15on

            Millennial here. Can assure you I work “out of hours”.

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  2. JonnyBanana43

    Interesting article, but what’s the solution?
    Certainly at the top end of the market it is all about fees and costs – why do firms insist on charging £950 to do a transaction on a £2.5m country house – it doesn’t make sense and everybody knows it. Clients are willing to pay £5000 for a premium service – so just do it!

    Also, most agents now KNOW that LA searches are back within a week – there is simply no excuse that the average transaction time has increased from five weeks to over 12… as you say; outdated work practices, but also poor calibre of staff.

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  3. TwitterSalisPropNews

    In 2019, more than ever, the answers are very simple:

    What is it that agents want?

    For the conveyancer to take the baton and secure an exchange ASAP – so that the estate agent can be paid. How many conveyancers actually realise that?

    But estate agents also need to care if there is a legal defect that needs sorting out. Bulldozing a buyer into accepting a defect is not good PR. We have a cleint now who feels this way, and is planning to tell everyone they know not to use this local estate agent.

    Massive PR blunder. We also work with agents who help with defects and where buyers become their next customer.

    The key issue

    Conveyancers need to actually care as if the sale/purchase files they are handling are their own – if they do, they will exchange weeks earlier, and will work with estate agents.

    But estate agents need to take more involvement during the legal process, as far too many lose interest and won’t help the moment the estate agent puts the deal together – yes, they abandon their own deal and let lawyers flounder on for weeks and months. Weird to say the least. Again, we work woth agents who are hands on throughout and who help save weeks by keeping the pressure on the lawyers along the whole chain.

    Conveyancers can sense the agents who don’t care, and it is those agents who can expect to have their calls/emails ignored if they don’t change their approach.

    Conveyancing is a busy activity

    Sure, each conveyancer looks after 60+ clients, but knowing yor own limits (and not getting too busy) is key. Being in a Firm where you are beaten with targets and expected to take on too much means you are in the wrong firm. Don’t accept that. No law firm should make conveyancers work outside hours or at weekends or beyond 9-6 (8-5).

    Don’t ever be too busy to update your clients or the estate agents – always time to ensure you impress to guarantee the next piece of incoming work.

    Lack of technology

    That is a red herring. Give a mediocre conveyancer all bells and whistles, and you now have a mediocre conveyancer with bells and whistles. No change. Until each conveyancer is excellent at what they do, forget the IT. We already have the fasted IT around  – enail – but so few even use that willingly.

    Is there a solution?

    Law firms should be selective when inviting CVs for new staff. Far too many medicore conveyancers are out there. Don’t encourage it. Demand the best for your clients. Then offer career prgression to your conveyancers, so conveyancers don’t just collect their salary and offer little more. Instil in them the approach that the sale and purchase files they handle should be as if it were their very own.

     

    ….. but medicocre conveyancers won’t like to read this and will defend themselves, as will mediocre estate agents…so little will change, only for those who aren’t mediocre or who decide to change.

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    1. PeeBee

      “But estate agents need to take more involvement during the legal process, as far too many lose interest and won’t help the moment the estate agent puts the deal together – yes, they abandon their own deal and let lawyers flounder on for weeks and months.”  
       
      Oh, shut up will you!  
       
      Estate Agents are actively discouraged from taking part in “the legal process”.  They are constantly ignored by many lawyers and conveyancers, seen as disruptions.  How dare Estate Agents question them!  
       
      TPOS Code of Practice states  
       
      “After acceptance of the offer by the seller, and until exchange of contracts you have no direct influence on such matters as the conveyancing process…”  
       
      ‘Agents’ such as Purplebricks openly state that they do not get involved unless asked – which appears to be in direct violation of TPOS guidance of their obligations (in same CoP) – but my in experience of 40 years of working with and for Estate Agents is that the vast majority put in enormous effort to keep their sales on track… in many cases despite what are often seen as the best efforts of the legal profession to slow – or even completely bu99er up – the process of getting their clients from A to B.  
       
      Which, after all, is what we are all paid to do.
       
      Isn’t it?

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      1. JonnyBanana43

        TPOS. Ha. 

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        1. PeeBee

          Are you a Member of TPOS, JB43?

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  4. Highstreetblues

    A good article, and Conveyancers do need to move with the times and become more efficient. This week I sent an email asking for an update, and the automated reply said they would “print it out and deal with it only as a priority alongside normal post”. How many times are we asked by Conveyancers “to speak to the buyers/sellers solicitor because they’re waiting for this and that” – send an email or pick up the phone and get on with it! My main gripe though is payment on completion. Having waited months for the monies, the payment is delayed and paid by BACS a few days later (with some even charging for the privilege of paying us by BACS), or even worse by cheque (unbelievable). Anyway, gripe over. Back to the coalface…

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  5. Woodentop

    Half the problem is inherent “how dare you chase me, you are just an estate agent”. “Go to the bottom of my workload pile, for showing up my failings and how inefficient I am.” The other half is the agents not getting their act together, ‘when to call’.

     

    With todays technology, far too many conveyancers/solicitors are still working in the dark ages, at their own pace. Yes, there are good ones and some are so good they contact agents first or have software allowing the agent to log-in to see progress. Most resisted in my experience by solicitors, because of fear it will show up failings.

     

    How many years has it been that everyone has complained that conveyancing needs reforming!

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  6. LetItGo

    I’d settle for a solicitor to contact me with an update but when does that ever happen. Conveyances get their commission even if the deal falls through, if that changed, so would their attitudes. We have a local solicitor that thinks we are the ‘project managers’ for the sale and ‘surprised that we aren’t more involved to protect our fee’, if the arrogance was replaced with communication then understanding would follow.

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    1. TwitterSalisPropNews

      You are the project manager, it’s your deal. You put it together.

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    2. CountryLass

      Well, tbh LetItGo, ‘project Manager’ isn’t a bad description for what you should be doing. Your job is to manage the offer through to completion, keep all parties as updated as possible and help things move smoothly!

       

      I worked as a Sales Progressor at one company for a while, until they restructured and I went to Lettings Management. In SP, my job was literally to keep the sale going and get people moved asap. So, once a week (or as needed) I would call the buyer and sellers solicitors on each case, see what was being waited for and then speak to the FA/Buyer/Seller as needed. I was also known to call the local authority if needed, on occasion the mortgage lender and once even drove to the client to get some documents signed and then hand delivered them to the solicitor. I also shocked my Director one day, when she was in the office when I found out a solicitor had blatantly lied to me, so I rang her to ask what the h£ll she thought she was playing at!

      Most conveyancers knew that I was trying to get it all done so we all got paid, and were quite happy to either give me an update or give it to the secretary to give me. They knew if they told me the issue, I would try and help, and we got on with it all really well!

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  7. Simon Brown

    A very good article, as always Peter. It helps me understand the working day for a busy conveyancer ( backed up by Rob’s comments) and I would like to think any agent reading it might think the same.

    It would be good to see a similar article written by an agent ‘Why do coneyancers have so much trouble talking to estate agents’. The more the 2 sides understand the pressures they are both under the more chance there is of cooperation.

    That said I think one of the main problems is DNA. We are simply talking about 2 very different types of people. Agents by nature are sales people, driven by targets and willing to take risks and not really interested in fine detail. Lawyers – naturally – are the opposite, risk averse, great attention to detail and don’t like being pressured (they have enough of that already).

    There’s no magic solution but the more they talk to each other and understand each others roles the more likely communication and transaction times will improve.

    That said we all know there are poor agents and poor conveyancers out there and when they work together it can take months to complete.

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    1. Woodentop

      There are some very good relationships with some agents and conveyancers but how many? If you are local to each other there is a common interest in getting along, kickbacks and referrals. Where it all falls down is this “them and us attitude” mainly from within the conveyancing process and using all excuses you can come up with why agents are nothing more than an interference in their eyes. Communication is pitiful and due process is archaic. Produce a system where agents and conveyancers clients can see progress without having to use the dog and bone would go a long way, actually light years forward. It is there to be used but not encouraged or even discouraged by far too many lawyers. Why? Accountability, as you said lawyers are risk adverse!

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  8. davidjabbari

    David Jabbari, CEO of Muve. This is not a novel problem in conveyancing as Rob Hailstone comments above: it was ever thus. Indeed, this is a lawyers’ problem more generally: they tend to make issues a heck of a lot more complex than they need to be.

    While the article does illustrate the problem well, it does not really indicate a solution.

    When we started Muve, as the leading tech-enabled, specialist conveyancing firm, we were determined to put as many of the traditional lawyers’  ‘dark ages’ practices behind us as possible.  It is all very well for lawyers to demand higher fees, as the price for giving more of their time to agents and clients, but I am afraid that the price competition genie is out of the bottle and will not go back in. The idea that we can charge more money and make some kind of Dickensian return to oak panelled consulting rooms is long gone.

    This means, as the article suggests, that lawyers are not going to have time to spend hours on the phone giving updates to clients or agents. So some other solution will have to be found.

    But why is it so difficult?  When you phone the bank First Direct, 90% of the time the call agent can handle your question with no need for a transfer to a more specialist department.  It certainly is not the case that only the lawyer can provide the right level of update for 70% of issues in the conveyancing process. The truth is most of the time lawyers over-complicate the process and are not sufficiently focused on getting the transaction done.

    The key is the quality of the case management platform and the quality of the individual account managers. We certainly have not cracked it but Muve’s growing team of specialist account managers, together with the investment we are making in improving the quality of our Milestone Tracker and Portal, and tools such as live chat,  is the only way we can see to get on top of this issue in a way that is likely to be a proper solution, rather than a sticking plaster. There is a long way to go but we plan to invest very heavily in this. .

    My perception is that for most estate agents conveyancing is the place where most of their stress originates. As well as improving updating agents and clients, we should be working to massively simplify the process. You can now go on the gov.uk website and see the full MOT history of a used car.  Why is property information so mysterious when upwards of 80% of properties carry no risks that would be material to the decision to purchase? At the end of the day, the quicker the transaction the happier everyone is, hence the launch earlier this year of our MuveFast guaranteed exchange time product.

    There is lots of work to do but this has to be the direction of travel.

     

     

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    1. PeeBee

      Most companies pay EYE for adverts, Mr Jabbari.

      Where should they send the Invoice in this instance?

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